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The lessons of 2023…and what it means for 2024

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With the 2023 elections behind us, many are ready to dive headfirst into the 2024 elections without taking time to reflect on and assess what worked, what didn’t work, and how we can apply these lessons to our work.

Undoubtedly, Democrats had major successes on Tuesday night. Democrats held the Virginia Senate, flipped the Virginia House, held on to the Governor’s office in Kentucky, and protected Abortion Rights in Ohio. Here at DBT, we were proud to work with the Loudoun County Democrats to drive up Democratic turnout, get Arben Istrefi elected to the school board, win common-sense majorities on the Roswell City Council, retain pro-education majorities on the Camden Board of Education, fight for increased public safety funding in Thurston Washington, work with Vote Pro-Choice PAC to elect pro-choice champions, and elect Wayne Fournier to the Thurston County Commission.

How did we do it? 

We worked to tell authentic stories. 

Too often in political campaigns, candidates (and causes) try to be something they are not. Every time, voters see straight through the facade. Voters care deeply about policy and issues, but just as importantly they care about character and want an elected official who will fight for them and tell them the truth.

In Ohio and Virginia, voters spoke loud and clear about the importance of protecting access to abortion. Democrats across Virginia ran against Glenn Youngkin’s 15-week abortion ban while Republicans flooded the airwaves and mailboxes with messages about out-of-control crime that fell flat with voters’ lived experiences. The authenticity of Democrats speaking with a unified voice and the inauthenticity of Republican fear-mongering delivered Democratic majorities.

In Thurston County, we saw the same dynamics play out. Career politician Vivian Eason lost two years ago running as a Republican, but came back in 2023 claiming to be an “independent”. Not only did Vivian’s views not change, neither did her financial backers. Her opponent, Tennino Mayor Wayne Fournier never ran away from who he is. As a firefighter and union leader, Wayne ran as a proud Democrat. As the race got towards election day, Eason unleashed a barrage of negative attacks on Wayne. With a limited communication budget, our team worked with Wayne to deliver a factual, level-headed, side-by-side comparison of the two candidates. Highlighting Wayne’s values, and shining a light on Vivian’s MAGA past (and present), we ensured Wayne pushed back against Vivian’s narrative.

A common theme throughout all of our electoral work was using testimonials. Let’s face it, politicians and candidates sometimes have a trust deficiency with voters. By using REAL people who look and feel like they are from the community, we were able to deliver more persuasive messaging. Voters know a candidate is going to say positive things about themselves, but when they open their mailbox, or their laptop, and see their neighbor, it increases the authenticity and makes voters pay more attention.

So, where do we go from here?

First of all, candidates need to lean into the most critical issue of the election. Until further notice, that will continue to be the need to protect access to abortion. In many cases, ending the gun violence epidemic will be a powerful second message, especially in elections for School Boards where offices may have less influence over abortion access. Democrats have a massive advantage on these issues, both in general elections and in primaries, and should continue to use them as the foundation of their campaign communications.

Second, campaigns need to break the traditional model of siloed communications – voters don’t know, and more importantly, don’t care where they heard a message. They care if the message resonated with them and drove them to take action. For too long, campaigns have focused on meeting the “TV Budget” the “Mail Budget” or the “Digital Budget” – putting money into a silo, instead of ensuring they create a wall of sound with voters.

Third, candidates need to lean into authentic story-telling. A smart communication plan will tell a full story in many chapters. Introducing a hero (our candidate) a villain (our opponent) and setting up a battle ( a fight over values, not policy). If a candidate is a policy wonk, design the communications to convey that message; if a candidate is a scientist, a firefighter, or a soccer mom, the design should reflect that as well. Do this test – look at any piece of communications; if the design looks like it could work for a candidate 5 districts away who has a different background and job than you have, save voters the time and throw it in the trash yourself. You are a unique candidate with a unique story – make sure your paid communications reflect that.

2024 is going to be a big year. We are poised to get big wins. We look forward to partnering with you and together, we will Do Big Things.

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